Overcoming the Challenge of Unprepared Students with LearnSmart Prep

Published September 14, 2017

By Richard Pirkle, Tennessee Tech University

If you ever find yourself stuck at a party talking with a college professor, I highly recommend you avoid the topic of student preparedness. This is especially true if you find yourself stuck with one of my fellow Anatomy and Physiology professors! Faculty across disciplines often bemoan the academic state of their current students, but A&P professors find themselves acutely aware of the students’ academic deficiencies. In my many conversations with other A&P faculty, I have encountered frustration, exasperation, and the repeated question of “what am I supposed to do?” As our understanding of the human body progresses to include molecular and genetic physiology, the amount of scientific understanding our students need to be successful has increased. Tasked with teaching complex scientific material to aspiring nurses, physical therapists, and doctors early in their post-secondary academic careers, A&P professors frequently lash out when student preparedness comes up in conversation. I am certain your party friend will give you a rant you will never forget!

There is a simple fix to our preparation problem but it is often infeasible: add pre-requisites for A&P courses. A general biology class covers the basics of genetics, biological molecules, and chemistry needed as a foundation for understanding many physiological processes. As universities nationwide try to reduce the number of hours it takes to get a degree, baccalaureate nursing programs reduced the number of pre-requisite classes they require. Absent of requirements to take college level biology courses, many students enter our A&P classes with a surface understanding of principles that will drastically influence their ability to succeed. The task of preparing students for A&P falls squarely on the students themselves and their A&P professors and instructors.

As an instructor, I feel an obligation to prepare my students the best I can. I have tried various methods to remediate my students’ deficiencies with varying degrees of success. I have forced students to talk to me during office hours by not giving back exams. This was more effective with smaller classes but in larger lectures (200+ students), it is impossible to spend enough time with each student to determine what help they need. Like many other professors, I have devoted about a quarter of my lecture time during A&P I to covering materials that would normally be covered in general biology. Though effective, this particular fix takes away precious in-class time that would be better used to talk about A&P specific material. It is also particularly bothersome to those students who are not nursing majors and have taken several previous courses that focus on the background information. Over time, I learned that what I needed was the ability to target specific students in regards to specific preparatory material in which they were deficient. At a meeting in Nashville, TN, I finally found the tool I had been searching for...

[Insert dramatic music of your choice; as a proud nerd, I choose the Imperial March from Star Wars]
When I first saw Connect, and in particular LearnSmart Prep, I remember feeling that excitement you get when some major pedagogical idea you have been working towards finally clicks. I had longed for a tool to help me reach my students where they were. For many of them, their lack of preparedness is not a sign of their attitude towards scholarship or a signal of their ability to learn. Instead, it is a product of their situation; in particular, their academic youth when taking the course and a system that pushes them into a course without the proper pre-requisites. Employing LearnSmart Prep at the beginning of the semester can allow the instructor to find the students who need remediation early regardless of the size of the class. The adaptive nature of LearnSmart Prep, in combination with the data collected by the Connect and available to both the faculty member and the student, enables me to strike the balance I always wanted to have. I can know what specifically confounds a particular student by checking their progress on LearnSmart Prep or I can look what tends to be difficult for the class as a whole. Most importantly, the student is aware of what they do not know.

There are several features of LearnSmart Prep worth noting. The interface is intuitive and helps any person move through the assignment, even the most digitally naïve. The questions are mobile friendly and I frequently see students sitting in the hallway before lab working through the assignments during a spare moment. Feedback is instantaneous which helps students realize where they can focus their efforts more quickly. Finally, the reports generated act as excellent jumping off points when a student comes to my office for help. I do not have to spend precious time playing 20 questions with them to figure out where they are tripping up. I simply pull up their LearnSmart Prep report and we can discuss the specific topics with which they struggle. The student and I both appreciate the advantage LearnSmart Prep gives us during these early semester meetings.

I truly believe that teaching college is an honor. I enjoy my job; I get to meet great people and have the chance to influence them to become lifelong learners. The challenge of dealing with students, who come from different backgrounds both socially and academically, is not going to go away. However, the use of adaptive tools like LearnSmart Prep and SmartBook make the task of reaching those students early and often more attainable no matter the size of the class.